Stephen Karam speaks to AnOther about his new film which, originally a Tony-awarding play, represents a gripping study of dread, anxiety and interfamilial intimacy
The Humans, Stephen Karam’s Tony award-winning play-turned-A24-produced feature, is perhaps best examined via Philip Glass’s Knee Play 5, which scores the closing credits. “The way [the song] ends without a lot of handholding and a story about love, that is the real undercurrent of this film,” says the writer and first-time director. “For all the anxiety and dread, it’s about the love of this family, and a 40-year marriage with the kind of intimacy and knowledge that can quickly turn scary.”
First appearing Off-Broadway in 2015, The Humans tells the story of a family from Scranton, Pennsylvania spending Thanksgiving in the new home of their youngest daughter and her partner: a dismal Chinatown apartment with unsightly leaks and noisy neighbours. “For a long time I thought it would never work as a film,” Karam says today. “It felt like everything that made it so special on stage, this ability to see everything at once, was impossible to capture on camera.” Re-evaluating, he looked at the cinema that shaped the play: psychological thrillers, horror, family dramas, comedies. “Then it became really exciting. I realised there was an interesting, specific way to tell the story on camera and started to think about the architecture of the space and its relationship to the characters.”
Karam’s early impetus for the story arrived while working as a paralegal, tied loosely with the aftermath of 9/11. “At my day job, in the 2007 financial crisis, I remember thinking I was still unpacking my relationship to downtown New York and post-9/11, my own family’s fears about safety. With the financial crisis, the hurricane and the blackout that hit New York, you start to see the resilience and remarkable strangeness. That’s the strange river I was swimming in when I was writing the play.” While he borrowed motifs from his own life – his family is from Scranton, and like one of the characters he also has an autoimmune disease – he isn’t precious, describing it instead as “emotional autobiography”. “I can’t tell the truth as well if I’m too literal. But I was thinking about my fears and anxiety, and the people I love and what keeps them up at night.”
Transferring The Humans from stage to screen, Karam decided to almost totally recast the family; Jayne Houdyshell, playing Deidre, the mother, was the lone holdover. “The six actors on Broadway were so specific, gave such indelible, brilliant performances, it was really freeing to actually have a scenario where you weren’t trying to do the impossible and recreate something,” he explains. “The movie was going to be a reinvention, and having this new family even forced Jayne to rebuild her performance.” The new iteration casts Beanie Feldstein and Steven Yeun as Brigid and Richard, the young couple with the spooky apartment, Amy Schumer as older sister Aimee, and Richard Jenkins as the father Erik; June Squibb is Momo, the grandmother.
“Amy was the one I was most nervous about,” says Karam, reflecting on how the modest project compared to Schumer’s usual, more explicitly comedic roles. “I thought she could do anything but you just never know. In some ways, with the kind of actors drawn to a project like this, it’s nicely self-selecting. And it’s such an ensemble piece, part of me knew when Amy wanted to do it. She was an extraordinary team player; it was clear she really wanted to lose herself in the part. So it’s more about audiences changing their perception because I do feel like the internet puts people in boxes.”
In Richard and Erik, Karam feeds into the anxiety that underscores the film, exploring his obsession with dreams through the relationship the two characters have with their own nightmares. “I’m totally Steven’s character,” he says. “I’m fascinated [by dreams]. They can be liberating, scary, perplexing. I find them interesting partly because of the way people either care or don’t care. With Richard and Steven’s characters, one could not be less interested in exploring his self-conscious, whereas Steven can’t stop talking about his dreams, the entire evening.”
Returning to the evening’s conclusion and the use of Knee Play 5, Karam describes needing to find a piece of music that married simplicity and grandness. “It literally starts with a counting exercise, but you feel the breadth of space and you know these numbers are leading you to something bigger and mysterious and grand. My biggest hope is that, in the midst of things they can’t solve, the family keeps coming back and putting one hand on the other and saying I love you, without even being about to make everything neat and clean.”
The Humans is released in UK cinemas on December 31, and is available to view now on Curzon Home Cinema.